When you hear a reggae song, it’s hard not to think of island breezes, the sun on your skin, and sand between your toes. And playing reggae, especially a group, is a fun yet meditative exercise in rhythm. Don’t worry if you’re still very new to guitar—reggae guitar chord progressions aren’t too hard to get the hang of!
An Overview of Reggae Guitar Chords
Before you dive into the chords you’ll need to play reggae, it’s a good idea to get at least some sense of this unique genre and its history. Here’s a quick rundown on reggae:
Reggae as a genre began in Jamaica. It first appeared in the late 1960s when the country was in tumult. There was poverty, political unrest, and civil war was on the horizon. The bass-forward reggae genre emphasized this rumbling uncertainty, and many lyrics were lyrics of protest and calls for change.
No history of reggae would be complete without the mention of Rastafarianism. This political and social movement formed to encourage unity of all people of African descent. Haile Selassie I, an Ethiopian emperor and a Rastafarian messiah, visited Jamaica in 1966. This visit stirred the Rastafari spirit in Jamaica, and many reggae songwriters began incorporating lyrics emphasizing peace and unity. Bob Marley is the most famous of these songwriters, and he is largely credited with introducing reggae to a global audience.
As for the name, “reggae” comes from a 1968 song by Toots and the Maytals called “Do the Reggay.” Since the song was in the reggae style, it became the one that effectively named the genre.
The genre’s development was influenced by several diverse types of music. Jamaican folk music, Afro-Caribbean calypso, and jazz and R&B from America all played a role. Reggae’s more immediate precursors, ska and rocksteady, seemed to partially evolve from these genres as well.
Today, reggae is considered to be major cultural export for Jamaica, and it’s a major source of income (as well as pride) for the country.
Style and Sound
As a genre, reggae has some signature sonic characteristics. Most songs prominently feature bass and drums. The bass sound is heavy and fat, and it’s also EQ’d to bring out lower frequencies and eliminate higher ones.
The most recognizable feature of reggae is probably the guitar rhythm, as it emphasizes the off beats (the “and” if you’re counting beats as “one and two and three and”). Often, a muted guitar plays along with the bass. Pianos and keyboards usually play along with the guitar and add some embellishments. Sometimes, horns are incorporated, often playing countermelodies.
In terms of tempo, reggae is relatively slow—definitely slower than ska and similar genres. That slow tempo and distinctive rhythm both give reggae its signature easygoing feel. And of course, reggae vocals are often in Jamaican Patois or Jamaican English. Sometimes, singers use an Iyaric dialect. This is a dialect created by members of the Rastafari movement that is sometimes called Dread Talk.
Though the rhythms may be easygoing, the lyrical themes in reggae aren’t always as relaxed. The genre is known for social criticism, political protest, and calls for change. But more recent reggae musicians have chosen to also focus on themes like hope and unity.
Is Reggae Easy? Key Concepts of Reggae Music
Whether or not reggae is an easy genre to learn depends on what you think of as “easy.” If you have some trouble with more technical pieces of music, you’ll probably find reggae easy by comparison. But if you don’t have a good natural sense of rhythm, you may find it difficult to master. Reggae is a genre that depends largely on feel and rhythm. Here are some of the most important things for you to know:
Bar chords are your friend –– Lots of beginner guitarists are apprehensive about bar chords. But in this genre, bars are essential to do the kind of string muting you need. Luckily, a lot of reggae musicians use partially-barred versions of these chords that are less hard on your fingers.
Master a few patterns — Though there are certainly outliers, many reggae songs use the same or similar strumming patterns (we’ll go over a couple in a moment). Taking the time to master a handful of strumming patterns will really pay off when it comes to learning new songs.
You need rhythm — The rhythm is an essential part of any reggae song. If you can really feel and internalize it, playing reggae will be easier and more fun.
Solos are the next step –– If you have any interest in playing lead guitar, reggae is also a good genre to start with. Most reggae solos don’t require you to play a flurry of notes very quickly. The major pentatonic scale and the blues scale are commonly chosen, but you can also use the major scale.
Reggae Guitar Chords: Easy Beginner Strumming
Before we get to the strumming patterns you’ll need, let’s look at some common reggae guitar chord choices. Most reggae chords will require at least a partial bar (we’ll look at why below). But even if you play a full bar chord, many reggae songs only require you to play strings one, two, and three, or the G, B, and high E strings.
Playing this way gives the guitar its own frequency range within the band, and it keeps the song from sounding too “muddy.” If you find a reggae chords chart, you’ll likely see several three-string or partial-bar versions of popular chords.
Two common reggae chords are C major and G major. To play the partial bar version of C major, use your first finger to bar the B and high E strings at the eighth fret. Place your middle finger on the G string at the ninth fret. Then place your ring finger on the D string at the tenth fret. Of course, make sure you aren’t hitting the A or the low E string as you strum.
There’s a similar shape you can use for G major. With your index finger, bar the G, B, and high E strings at the seventh fret. At the eighth fret, place your middle finger on the B string. Then place your ring finger on the D string at the ninth fret.
Some reggae chord charts may emphasize triads, or simplified three-string versions of chords. (To play the above chords this way, just leave off the ring-finger parts of both.) You may find these easier to manage. Alternatively, if you’re already pretty familiar with bar chords that have the root note at the sixth or fifth string, you can use these but primarily strike the first three strings.
The good news is that most reggae music does not use especially complex chords. Many popular reggae hits use one or two major chords. Minor chords aren’t quite as common, but they’re found more often in roots reggae, a subgenre that focuses on both spirituality and everyday life. You may find major seventh chords in some songs, too.
What is Muting in Reggae?
If you have any familiarity with reggae music, you probably have noticed that reggae chords don’t ring out; they form a more staccato sound. That sound comes from a special type of string muting. You may be familiar with palm muting, but muting in reggae is done with your fretting hand.
To mute, you simply lift your fretting fingers up off the fretboard just enough that they are touching the strings. This deadens the sound and stops the chord from having any real sustain. Don’t lift your fingers entirely off the fretboard; you only need to adjust them so you’re applying barely any pressure to the strings.
That’s why common reggae chords are almost always played as bar chords. Try playing an open C or G chord and then lifting your fretting hand slightly. You’re muting the strings you’re touching, but the open strings are still ringing out. Using reggae bar chords lets you mute the whole chord easily, and once you get the hang of muting, you’ll be able to do it almost without thinking.
Reggae Strumming Style
The key to being good at reggae lies more in musicality than in technique. So to make sure you really get the feel, it’s a good idea to just practice your strumming with all the strings muted.
There are a few different styles of strumming in reggae. The most common one is when you do a single down strum on the second and fourth beat. This may be a little easier to conceptualize if you think of counting your beats “one AND two AND three AND…” If you count this way, the down strum would be on each “and.” This is probably the most common strumming pattern in the genre, and most easy reggae songs guitar players learn first use it.
Some players like to up strum in between down strums. Specifically, another common strumming pattern in reggae involves using a down strum and an up strum very close together on the same beat. This one is a little harder to coordinate, as you’ll need to very quickly mute after each strum. When you’re first learning, it’s a lot easier to just focus on down strums.
Because muting is such an important part of the genre, make sure you avoid hitting open strings. On partial bar chords, make sure you’re only hitting the first three strings. Most reggae bar chords are played this way. But if you want to experiment with adding some more low end to your sound, you can also try playing full bar chords.
The way you strum also makes a major difference in your sound. You may notice that most reggae chord progressions move along with a sort of “chop” sound on each chord. That signature sound comes from two things: your attack and your muting style. Make sure your pick attack is strong and forceful.
Of course, coordinating your strumming style with your muting technique will take some practice. The most important thing is to make sure you find a groove and follow it. When you’re first getting your style down, it helps to practice along with some of your favorite reggae recordings. And if you know any other musicians who play reggae, practicing with them can be very helpful, too.
Music Influence of Reggae
If you have some knowledge of music history, you just might be able to hear some of the musical influences that helped shape the genre. One of the earliest influences is “mento.” Mento is essentially Jamaican folk music. Since Jamaica was colonized by Spain and Britain and enslaved workers were brought in from Africa, elements of African and European cultures fused. That cultural fusion was the backbone of mento, which became especially popular in the 1940s and 1950s.
Ska music, which became more popular in Jamaica as mento’s popularity began to wane, is also a major influence. A lot of reggae songs sound a bit like a slowed-down ska songs. In the 1960s, Jamaica became enamored with American R&B. R&B, along with the slow-paced rocksteady genre, also helped shape what eventually became known as reggae.
Of course, reggae has also gone on to influence other styles of music. Reggaeton adds elements of Latin American music, while seggae combines reggae and sega, the traditional music of the Mascarene Islands. In Britain, the “two-tone” genre of the 1970s and 1980s blended elements of ska, reggae, new wave, and punk rock. A newer genre called “reggaestep” became popular on SoundCloud around 2010. Reggaestep combines elements of reggae and dubstep.
Easy Reggae Guitar Songs for Beginners
If you’re excited to start playing reggae music, you’ll probably want to know of some relatively easy songs to start with. Here are five good ones:
“Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley — This cheerful, upbeat song only requires you to play three chords. In the original version, you’ll need A, D, and E. However, it’s possible to find arrangements in different keys.
“Stranger in Town” by Gregory Isaacs — Gregory Isaacs may not be quite as famous as Bob Marley, but his reggae songs have the same relaxed, carefree vibe. “Stranger in Town” is a great song to start with, as you will only need C major and G major.
“Stir It Up” by Bob Marley — Once you get the hang of “Three Little Birds,” “Stir It Up” isn’t that much different; most versions also use A, D, and E. Some people believe the song is about love and others think it’s about smoking cannabis. Regardless of the meaning, “Stir It Up” is perfect for creating a relaxed vibe.
“Night Nurse” by Gregory Isaacs — Playing songs with all major chords is fun enough, but if you want to get a taste of reggae with minor chords, “Night Nurse” is a great song to start with. In most versions, you only need two easy reggae chords: A minor and G major.
“Redemption Song” by Bob Marley — “Redemption Song” is a Bob Marley favorite. And while it’s a bit more complex than the previous four songs, it’s a good step up (and doesn’t include any really difficult chords). For this one, you need G, C, E minor, A minor, and D. This song will help you test your skills, especially when it comes to chord changes. When you first get the hang of the reggae strumming pattern, maintaining it through several chord changes can certainly be a challenge!
Of course, these songs are only the beginning. If there are other songs you’re eager to learn, reggae tabs guitar sites offer are usually fairly accurate. Or if you’re a little more old-fashioned, you might want to get a reggae songbook.
Now you have a bit of an introduction to reggae, what some call Jamaica’s gift to the world. But you might still have some questions. Here are some quick answers:
Since reggae requires you to “choke” or “chop” your chords with fretting-hand muting, the best way to play any reggae guitar chord is to bar it. Partially barring chords and playing only the first three strings is a good way to do this. However, you can play the fully-barred versions if you prefer.
When you play chords this way, getting the right timing is key. The best way to do this is to first listen closely to a given reggae song. Then, try playing along with it. Be patient with yourself — depending on your experience on the guitar and your natural rhythm, it may take some time to really master playing in the reggae style.
Many common reggae chord progressions only include two or three chords. Frequently, these are major chords. However, songs in the “roots reggae” subgenre often have a few minor chords mixed in. Some reggae songs use major seventh chords, too.
Technically, you can write a reggae song using just about any chords. But in many reggae songs, only two or three chords are used. The focus is on rhythm and atmosphere — not on complexity. Simple chord arrangements make it easy to get into the song and create an authentic rhythm. The majority of reggae songs have four chords. With this kind of progression, you get some variety, but the song still isn’t difficult to remember.
Most of the time, reggae songs are played in standard tuning. Standard tuning is EADGBE from the low E to the high E string.
Reggae songs are almost all written using diatonic chords, or chords that are all in the same key. Most chord sequences include the I, V, and IV chords in the key, as well as one minor chord (usually the VIm).
For example, if a song is in C major, the I is C, the V is G, the IV is F, and the VIm is Am. Often, in reggae, that progression goes I-V-VIm-IV, or C-G-Am-F in this case. The two-chord song “Night Nurse” mentioned above is written in C major, and its chord progression is VIm-V, or Am-G.
Maybe you’ve been a reggae fan for a while and finally want to learn to play it. Or perhaps you’re discovering new reggae songs and learning them as you go. Either way, learning this genre can help you develop your guitar skills and bring some real joy to your life.